The Abe Speech



Comment on Japan’s public apologies resembles the way kids of my generation read Catcher in the Rye. We leafed through the book to find the buzzwords—in this case regret, remorse, condolences, apology—and then measured the words against expectations. In Salinger’s novel, expectations were high and fulfilled; with Abe they were low to begin with and then only marginally fulfilled at best.

There is much in the speech that struck the right notes. Abe signaled continuity with past statements, although in a maddening way that left his own views of those statements vague. Contrary to fears, there was no “rollback” of the 1993 Kono statement on the comfort women issue, the eloquent Muruyama statement of 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war or for that matter the myriad of other statements public officials have made in the postwar period (in this case Wikipedia at least provides a good starting point). The second half of Abe’s speech uses an effective anaphora, calling on his countrymen and women repeatedly to “engrave on their hearts” the lessons of the past. And Abe is in my view fully warranted in pointing to Japan’s postwar foreign policy record and in asking whether Japan will be called on to apologize in perpetuity.

But reading the speech in this way misses two important bits of context. The first, raised incisively by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, is the extent to which the broad outlines of Abe’s history lesson conforms with the distorted historical narrative now on display at Yūshūkan, the war museum on the Yasukuni site. The second is the way the prior report to the cabinet and other actions served as qualifiers on the speech, sending decidedly mixed messages.

As in the Yūshūkan, the starting point for Abe’s long historical narrative is Western imperialism, which pushed Japan to modernize and thereby allowed it to escape foreign domination. In a particularly head-spinning aside, Abe claims that the Japan-Russia War, which was the effective onset of Japanese control over Korea, “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa.” Abe reminds the West of the destructiveness of World War I and comes close to saying that Japan was pushed into a more expansionist course at least in part by “Western countries launching economic blocs by involving colonial economies”; the wall text in the Yūshūkan goes farther, detailing how US sanctions forced Japan to undertake its Southern strategy of going after the natural resources in Southeast Asia.

And in one of the most enduring Japanese tropes, the country manages to come out of the Pacific War as the victim: “The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the air raids on Tokyo and other cities, and the ground battles in Okinawa, among others, took a heavy toll among ordinary citizens without mercy.” It is hard to overstate how deeply ambiguous such sentences are. Are we to reflect on the Japanese actions that brought about such suffering or on the American perpetrators? As Morris-Suzuki puts it, “the whole story, in short, dissolves the line between aggressor and victim, between invader and those invaded. It is a massive step back from the Murayama and Koizumi statements.”

The other ambiguity of the address is to be found not in the speech itself, but in the long Report of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century (.pdf here) and other actions that surround it. I will leave it to the country experts to parse this report more finely, and provide information on its authors, but I read it from start to finish. There are in fact lessons—about the role of international law, democracy and the peaceful settlement of disputes—on which we can all agree. But it essentially provides a longer version of the history contained in the Abe speech: an extended effort to craft a new national narrative. Here we do in fact find many of the details left out of the speech but central to the Yasukuni pitch, including the role of US sanctions in creating the conditions that lead to the Pacific War.

One particular footnote is worth the price of reading the entire document. Following a statement about Japan’s “aggression” following the Manchurian Incident, a footnote states:

“There were some dissenting views in the Panel concerning the use of the word “aggression”. The reasons for this were 1) the definition of “aggression” has not been established under international law; 2) there is objection from a historical perspective to stating that the series of events from the Manchurian Incident onward constituted “aggression”; and 3) there is a sense of reluctance towards stating that only the actions of Japan constituted “aggression” while other countries were taking similar actions.”

How is it possible to have a serious historical discussion with this sort of hair-splitting? The comfort women issue is not dealt with through forthright statement of the facts—as Kono did—but through a recitation of the way in which the issue had been addressed politically through the Asian Women’s Fund and bilateral agreements.

And one day following his speech, three cabinet ministers visited Yasukuni as well as Abe’s wife. It was left to the emperor to issue a more open statement that almost appeared as a rebuttal.

The final bit of current context centers on the current bills before the upper house of the Diet that reflect Abe’s effort to re-interpret Article IX and redefine the meaning of collective self-defense. Japan’s foreign policy in the postwar period was no doubt the result of fundamental domestic political changes in the country, from public opinion to new democratic institutions. But the constitution and Article IX in particular played a crucial constraining role. Abe’s statement comes exactly as he is on course to revise the meaning of Article IX. Although many American analysts—myself included—do not see anything fundamentally wrong with Japan becoming a more normal country with respect to its self-defense. But Abe is not necessarily the right man to deliver this message to the rest of the region.

Official reactions to the speech ran the gamut. The US put the most positive spin on the speech, noting the “commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history” emphasizing that “for 70 years Japan has demonstrated an abiding commitment to peace, democracy, and the rule of law” that “stands as a model for nations everywhere.” China’s—or more accurately Xinhua’s--is the most unpleasant and also the one with the least moral heft. There should be an admission price to any history debate: the willingness to allow an open and uncensored historical debate about your own shortcomings. China has not paid that price of admission and as a result its hectoring is probably having exactly the opposite effect, sustaining the Japanese right wing that it purports to loath.

Park Geun Hye’s 70th anniversary speech focused largely on North-South relations but noted that the speech fell short of expectations. But it did take the speech as an endorsement of past statements and closed with an uplifting note that we hope is pursued by both sides: that “while considerable difficulties remain, it is high time for us to move forward to a new future guided by a correct view of history.”

More From

Related Topics